The life of the “guano palm”

An endangered and very attractive species of the Cuban flora is visited by a Planta!’s team. Named after Dr. Atila Borhidi, a Hungarian botanist who devoted many years to the study of the Cuban flora, Coccothrinax borhidiana needs our help to secure its survival.


Fecha: 12/07/2019


Project: Conservation of threatened species from arid zones of Cuba.


The guano palm (Coccothrinax borhidiana) is an exclusive species of the coastal zone of Punta Guanos, in the western province of Matanzas. It is at this location where the single known population of the species occurs. With 4 meters of height, this palm dominates the landscape. Its dead leaves are still attached to the upper part of the trunk, holding on to a past that isn’t ready yet to stay behind.

It was in fact the abundance of this species in the past what gave the place its name: Punta Guanos. However, this site does not seem safe for the palm anymore. It is halfway between two industrial poles, and an important natural gas and oil exploitation plant has been developed in this site, putting the population of Coccothrtinax borhidiana at risk. Also, constructions have been added to a nearby area, which are not always environment friendly.

Coccothrinax borhidiana is an exclusive species from the coastal area of Punta Guanos in Matanzas.

But it is not too late. My colleague Mayté Pernús, two students of Biology and I leave once more to Punta Guanos. We will continue sampling and characterizing the structure of the population.

In the field

We arrived at Punta Guanos at nine in the morning and we walked a long way to the area we wanted to study. Under our boots was the so-called “dog’s tooth”, that sharp and apparently sterile rock that nonetheless shelters so much life.

On our way there we identified the plants we encountered so that the students will learn about the flora of this place. In addition to the guano palm, we found other very valuable species such as the jíjira or pitahaya (Harrisia eriophora) and the “aguacate cimarrón”(Dendrocereus nudiflorus).

These trips help students to learn about active conservation

Our palms live on the coast line, distant from each other, but as we move further inland a rather dense dry forest appears. Punta Guanos is not a protected area and it has greatly deteriorated due to oil exploitation acitivities which is the main threat of the species. So, it is a rough fight.

A fearless team

To delimit the plots with a tape measure we had to cross patches of dense vegetation, with the cacti pricking us on several ocassions. However, the students (Sandy Toledo and Patricia González) were enthusiastic. I was impresed by how fast and efficiently they were sampling. Occasionally, when Mayte and I were delayed analyzing data collected in a plot, they already had the next plot already delimited and almost half of the plants measured. This way the work is done efficiently, and the students are directly involved in conservation actions.

These trips help students to learn about active conservation

This expedition, our fourth to this location, allowed us to monitor a total of 49 plots, where we quantified 690 individuals, from which 157 are juveniles.

A future for the guano palm

We continued the exploration towards the east of Punta Guanos, in the opposite direction to the oil wells. Much to our surprise, we did not see guano palms in this area. Our search for new individuals of the species was over. It was sad to find the limit of the species, that point beyond which it will be absent from the landscape, showing how restricted our plants are to small fragments of vegetation due to insularity.

«In the near future it might be necessary to introduce this endemic small palm of Matanzas – Coccothrinax borhidiana – in another nearby and protected site as a desperate measure to secure its survival. The study of its population and the design of a conservation plan are now more important than ever».

José Angel García Beltrán

Member of the arid zones project – Planta!

Researcher, National Botanical Garden, University of Havana

Knowing in depth the guano palm, how many plants are left, its current state and survival strategies, prepares us to establish new and more suitables areas for its development «away from home». Economical development sometimes brings challenges such as these ones, where it is necessary to relocate a population to more sheltered places. If the day comes when Punta Guanos losses its palm, it will still grow proudly in other landscapes. It is for that future that we work today.

A total of 157 juveniles of Coccothrinax borhidiana have been counted

A total of 533 adult individuals of Coccothrinax borhidiana have been counted

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